Written by Greg Barbrick
The current success of Downton Abbey is just the latest example of a subject that the English never seem to tire of. Actually, I should amend that. Programs about the lives of the British upper-class in the early part of the 20th century have proven to be incredibly popular all over the world. Generally, these are television miniseries, and include such memorable titles as Upstairs, Downstairs and Brideshead Revisited. One of the earliest of these so-called “period dramas” was Parade’s End (1964). It was originally televised in three 90-minute parts on the BBC and has just been released to the home market as a two-DVD set.
One surprising aspect of Parade’s End is in just how far it pushed the boundaries of the day. In 1964, the BBC was not exactly known for being adventurous. In fact, the network was nicknamed “Auntie,” as in “Auntie knows best.” The themes of Parade’s End could be considered controversial even today. I can only imagine how scandalous they seemed in 1964.
The source material comes from four novels by Ford Madox Ford, published between 1924-28. The main conflict revolves around a love triangle involving Christopher Tietjens (Ronald Hines); his duplicitous wife Sylvia (Jeanne Moore); and the young, free-spirited suffragette Valentine Wannop (Judi Dench). This tale plays out before, during, and after World War I among the wealthy “one-percent” of England‘s upper crust.
The titles of the episodes come from Ford’s books, which were condensed into three parts. The first is “Some Do Not” and introduces us to the main characters. Sylvia Tietjen is described by her husband as “a bitch” early on, and she certainly lives up to the designation. She is horrible, and the only reason Christopher stays with her is for the sake of appearances. She cheats on him, plots to ruin his life, and does just about everything she can to make us hate her. Even her own mother can’t stand her.
Christopher Tietjens is propriety incarnate. I think it is characters like this that make these types of programs so irresistible. Although the plot of The Remains of the Day (1993) takes place 20 years after that of Parade’s End, the male protagonists are similar in many ways. Anyone who has ever seen the reserved (to the point of constipation) butler Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) in Remains should understand. Christopher Tietjens does his best to repress all emotions while the world rages around him.
Parade’s End was one of Dame Judi Dench’s earliest roles, and she is fantastic as Valentine Wannop. Valentine is everything Sylvia is not. Young, beautiful, and as wild as the wind. Christopher is taken by her immediately, as is the audience. As a suffragette, working to get the vote for women, she is also a threat to the old order. Valentine is “forbidden fruit” in just about every way, and Christopher is intoxicated by her.
“No More Parades” is the second installment, and in it we follow Tietjens into war. He is first stationed in France and later to Belgium. Of the three parts, I found “No More Parades” to be the most satisfying. In “Some Do Not” we get what is going on pretty easily. The basic elements of the characters are spelled out very strongly. To be honest, 90 minutes is more than enough time to understand who these people are.
The wartime action during “No More Parades” is a metaphor for what is going on with Christopher Tietjens, but this is not immediately obvious. Another reason that I enjoy these types of dramas so much is that you really do not know what is coming next. At least, you do not see what is going to happen in the best of them. The situations Christopher encounters in “No More Parades” consistently surprised me, and it was not until I had finished watching it that I understood what they represented.
The third and final piece is “A Man Could Stand Up.” The war is over, and like the entire world, it is time for Christopher to figure out how he is going to move forward. He has changed, and there is no going back. Obviously, he has a choice to make. Does he stay miserable but socially “responsible” with Sylvia, or does he try to change his life by leaving her? Up to this point, Valentine has been a figure of desire more than anything else. We have gotten to know her a little and do see that there is more to her than that initial, free-spirited young lady we first met.
In “A Man Could Stand Up” we discover that there is actually quite a bit more to Miss Wannop though. To describe much more of this episode would give it all away, so I will stop here. I will say that the conclusion was unexpected however.
Even though the novels were written back in the 1920s, Ford did not play it safe. Parade’s End is a powerful story, so good in fact that “Auntie” remade it in 2012. As Doctor Who fans know all too well, the BBC’s policy of “wiping” practically their entire library of the 1960s makes everything from those years quite rare. I was hoping for a bonus feature explaining how Parade’s End survived the purge, but alas – there is none. I suppose it is unimportant in the end, just a historical curiosity. The important thing is that this four and a half-hour mini-series did survive, and remains as impressive a production as ever.